10. No Man’s Sky: NEXT (Hello Games)
Never underestimate how much a photo mode can make me love a game. I was never the person who called for the head of Hello Games after No Man’s Sky came out and didn’t live up to the massive amount of hype it had built. The game was what I expected, a survival game that was fine. With this expansion that changes the majority of the game I found myself just enjoying being in the world more and more. Going from planet to planet, taking my photos and moving on. Going to a space station that feels less like that bar you’re not welcome at and more like neighborhood where you want to talk to everyone. No Man’s Sky still isn’t the MMO some people wanted it to be but it sure does feel a lot less lonely, even when you are hiking through the woods all alone.
9. Return of the Obra Dinn (Lucas Pope)
Obra Dinn is a murder mystery. Or more that it’s around 50 murder mysteries. It gives you a set of tools and tells you to figure everything out by yourself. Working your way through the betrayals, accidents and forces of a higher power leaves you a mess of notes and theories. You start to get a sense of the characters of the ship, the big players, those who sit on the sideline and those who use violence to get what they want. There is something both eerie and calming of walking through the moments of horror. You’re not involved. You’re just an observer. Detached, just trying to figure out what happened.
8. Scrambled: Syd City (Team Rumblebee)
I’ve been a huge fan of the work of Team Rumblebee since their start making a fan game for Life is Strange. I loved their follow up Loan Wolf and was excited to see what they might do next. I couldn’t have guessed that their quality would jump so far in a year. Scrambled is a WLW romance visual novel with tons of jokes, but it’s also a great superhero story. It’s all about morality, redemption, trying you best and doing stupid things cause you just feel like you need to. With a strong trio of characters at its core Scrambled is a great achievement. I can’t be wait to be surprised at what they release next.
7. Lovestruck (Voltage Visual Romance)
Lovestruck is a game I saw advertised on tumblr countless time. It blended in with a whole lot of western VN games with eye catching ads that were more widely mocked then anything. So when I finally sat down and gave one of the largest games a chance I was surprised to find a whole collection of great stories that had me checking in every couple hours to see what was going to happen next. You had butch werewolf Mackenzie, part time villain, all time social media model Andi or broken witch Helena. All those characters I ended up really enjoying, not just their relationship with my character but their goals and dreams and failings. In playing with some broad strokes of genre Lovestruck finds wonderful characters in those margins.
6. Marvel’s Spider-Man (Insomniac Games)
I can’t talk that much about Marvel’s Spider-Man without first saying how the even previously pretty pro-cop hero of Peter Parker spends parts of the game calling himself “Spider-Cop” and fixing surveillance towers for the police. In 2018 that shit is just straight up bad and you need to really take a hard look at yourself when writing it. That said, man I fucking love Spider-Man and this is probably one of the best versions of Peter Parker that we’ve gotten. Further along then we’ve seen the web head in years, he’s already getting to the kinda depressing but still trying moment of his life that is very relatable to me right now. His relationship with new father figure Otto Octavius is full of dramatic irony and tragedy, but also full of real connection that make the moments of manipulation hurt all the more. The web swinging feels so good, I don’t think I’ve had this much fun just moving through a game world since Mirror’s Edge. Combine that with my guilty pleasures of collectables and unlocking costumes and there was no way I couldn’t like this game.
5. Forza Horizon 4 (Microsoft Studios)
The appeal of a good driving game is all about feel. The feel of speed, of the weight of your car barreling down a road, your tires barely holding on as you go through a tight corner. Forza nails all of those much better than a lot of games I’ve played. With a wide array of cars from the latest super car to old crap cult classics like the Reliant it’s easy to find your fleet of vehicles and customize them to your heart’s content. Get your new car, slap the most over the top paint job on it (Touhou girl a plus), and then peel off into whatever race is coming up.
4. Monster Hunter: Worlds (Capcom)
Monster Hunter has existed for over a decade as a huge deal in Japan and niche curiosity in the US. Smarter people than me could write articles about why it took until a Monster Hunter game that was about conquering a “New World” for the series to sink its claws in North America. For my part I found the initial cliff hard to climb until I took a bowgun out and shot down a Pukei-Pukei from the air. It was in that moment that everything clicked and I enjoyed every hunt, frantically crafting ammo, and running for my life. This game even got me to get over my dislike of online games, the feeling of supporting friends with health shots and suppressing fire as they cut into huge dragons was too good not to.
3. Delatrune: Chapter 1 (toby fox)
In a world of hype and previews that stretch out for years it was almost refreshing to have something just drop. The fact that it was a follow up of sorts to my favorite game of all time was a huge plus. Deltarune introduces us to fewer but a bit more complex characters and a more complex view on violence than its predecessor. Deltarune does well by first introducing what seems to be a world of fanservice (Toriel is your mom!) and then thrusting you into a new but just as fun world.
The introduction of a full party leads to some of the smartest changes, allowing some of the more tedious moments of Undertale to be reduced to single turns. With the two side characters acting as devil and angel on hero Kris’ shoulder it makes it all the more obvious that while Toby Fox is interested in the same ideas he’s not simply re-treading. More is at play here and making your way through the story it becomes clear it’s already more nuanced than before.
The rest of Deltarune may take years to come out although I do think it eventually will. Many fans were sad to see the world of Deltarune snatched away at the end, characters like Mettaton and Papyrus hidden from view. I found myself not really caring too much for what they may be like now. Instead I started thinking about the new cast of characters, with their own hopes and dreams and waiting for the day I will see them again.
2. The Missing: J.J. Macfield and the Island of Memories (White Owls)
In coming into the year the last thing I could have expected that noted but hit or miss developer SWERY would make a game that puts into gameplay my feelings for the majority of my life. Starting as a simple puzzle game where two girls on a maybe romantic camping trip are soon separated and the island they’re on becomes more dangerous and twisted as hero JJ goes deeper and deeper into the island in the search of her friend Emily. Her drive to be by her side eventually overcoming grisly death after grisly death
It’s pretty early into the game’s short play time that JJ is struck by lightning and after patting herself out and pulling herself together she’s right back calling for Emily. Using her body and its ability to withstand pain is the crux of the game. It’s gore is cartoonish but JJ’s pained screams and animation as she drags her bisected self across a level feels all too painful. However she keeps getting up, knowing that she will soon toss herself into another sawblade in the pursuit of her goals. This violence against its female main character could come off as glorified snuff as Tomb Raider often does but here it’s intertwined with the story.
JJ’s phone beeps every so often, sometimes with new messages from her now destroyed stuffed animal but more often old messages from friends, teachers and family. It’s these interactions that make up the emotional core of the game. We see JJ react to people differently, from the emotional honesty she shares with Emily to the detached nature she has with her one guy friend. JJ is often distant and the game spins around several secrets before finally delivering them with relatable gut punches. A worried text from mom, the sharing of a mean social media account and the friend who can only offer their “srys.”
The Missing ends up in a place much stranger and much more familiar than it’s island and the journey JJ goes through is not just about the tearing of flesh but also the small moments where friends hurt us, where we don’t trust people to understand us and the comfort we get when we need it. In a game that could be cynical and take joy in the suffering of it’s hero it instead knows that this pain was terrible but that she survived it and that she has found the strength to move on.
1. Celeste (Matt Makes Games)
I did not like the intense punishing platformer. I fell off Meat Boy due to the frustration I felt throwing myself again and again into spikes. I think it was the side scrolling boss battle that eventually led to me deleting it from my computer. So when Celeste came out and was talked up by everyone I know I wrote it off. Another game too hard for me. I should have listened because Celeste was made for people like me.
Hero Madeline comes to the mountain that Celeste takes part on knowing she must climb it. She doesn’t know why but her stubbornness keeps her there even after every warning she might receive. Then her self doubt made manifest appears and the game ramps up in difficulty. As you try and fail to get up the mountain you are always greeted with that self doubt, but also the understanding that you can make it.
I took several breaks from Celeste. Some of them lasted months. I never felt like I had given up on the game, and even the game understood that. Sometime you need to break down a mountain a little bit at a time. Returning only when you feel ready and making as much progress as you can at that moment. Sometimes I should have taken breaks earlier then I did. 100s of death caused by me trying to do too much at once. Forcing myself to do it could be just as damaging as giving up.
Celeste is a game about knowing your limits and also slowly working past them. I never would have expected to complete a precision platformer like this at the beginning of the year. However through sheer will power, careful breaks and over 2000 deaths I reached the top of the mountain. As I sat there, watching my little character sit there, I felt accomplished. It reminded me of all the things I had accomplished over time, slowly built up and done by working through my failings. Celeste knows that the journey is the most important part but also knows that having that moment on top of the world feels pretty damn good.